Tuesday, December 22, 2054

Chapter Eight

Paul woke early the next morning and tried to follow his usual routine. He had a queasy feeling about how the day would go. So far, the day had sucked. The shaving cream had run out, so he had to shave with soap. When he went for his first cup of coffee, he discovered that he had put the grounds directly into the basket and forgotten the filter, thus brewing a strong pot of silt. And stepping out the front door to retrieve the morning paper, he could see that the rain from the previous night was beginning to steam on the sidewalk. It was going to be a hot one.

Most of the serious press figured they’d get their fill at the White House ceremony, but the tabloids still had their cameras parked in front of the house. They were there to record the major event when Paul walked from the house to the limo a short while later. Paul leaned into the back and said to Darrell, “You’ve seen this stuff before, right?”, motioning to the cameras. “How long before they get bored and go away”?

Darrell said, “They’re not going anywhere as long as you keep giving them such a lovely shot of your ass. Get in the car”. Darrell handed him a Starbuck’s Grande as the car pulled away. “So, are you ready for your adoring public”?

Paul responded, “I think I’ll be happy when this is all over with. I never realized being famous could be such a ball buster.”

Darrell laughed. “Enjoy it while it lasts. Believe it or not, you’re going to miss it when its over”.

The limo entered through one of the less visible White House gates, Darrell explaining that it would make his “entrance” more dramatic later in the Rose Garden. They had an hour to kill before the ceremony and Darrell used the time to walk Paul through the script one more time.

When the time arrived, Darrell led Paul to a doorway, and there, in the flesh, stood the President. He shook Paul’s hand, and seeing his expression, smiled and said, “Don’t worry. This won’t hurt a bit”.

President Harper led Paul out to the Rose Garden. There was a podium with the Presidential Seal on a rostrum. Seated behind the podium were a number of dignitaries, including the Vice President, a couple of cabinet members, one Supreme Court Justice, and Tom Douglas looking rather smug. Also seated with the VIP’s were Rachel and Paul’s mother. The audience consisted of a troop of Boy Scouts, a group from a Catholic girls’ school, (identifiable by matching plaid uniforms), a small number of other groups and individuals whose presence was most likely payback for some minor donations or deeds in favor of the present administration. And, of course, there was the press pool. They seemed to outnumber the civilian audience by a fair margin.

Adelaide Rotholz was standing discretely off to the side watching events unfold.

As Paul and the President came into sight, the audience and dignitaries all came to their feet. The applause was significantly more than polite. Paul was in a daze and the President was visibly eating it up.

After waiting a short interval, Mackinzie Harper raised both hands, palms out, signaling for quiet. When the crowd finally took their seats, the President began, “Two days ago, an ordinary citizen like any of you here before me, found himself faced with an extraordinary circumstance. Driving to work, like he does every day of the week, he came across a scene of hellish proportions; a truck overturned on the highway, it’s driver unconscious, with flames threatening. Without hesitation, and with utter disregard for his own safety, this man, Paul Harkness went to that man’s aid.” As he said this, he gestured toward Paul, standing beside him. The crowd broke out in its first interruption of applause.

As the applause died down, the President continued. “Mr. Harkness was able to rescue that man, Jordan Anderson, who is here with us today.” President Harper gestured to a man in the front row and he rose for a moment, greeted by polite applause.

Unbelievable, Paul thought. The guy drives a truck 40 mph over the limit, almost takes out an entire family and gets invited to the White House. Wacky world.

President Harper went on, “Alone, this selfless act would be worthy of our admiration. But what occurred next is what truly elevates Mr. Harkness in the Nation’s Conscious. In spite of his own injuries, Mr. Harkness undertook yet another rescue. And not just any rescue. This was a rescue in the freezing, swift currents of the Potomac River. Robert Jessup has his wife and two children with him here today because of the courageous acts of the man we are here to honor”. At this, the Jessup family stood from their seats in the front row of the audience. Paul hadn’t recognized them until now. The entire family rushed over, Mr. Jessup shaking Paul’s hand furiously, Mrs. Jessup planting a shy but emotional kiss on his cheek. Judging by Tom Douglas’s facial expression, this demonstration was not part of the script. Oh, well. So much for the President’s schedule. They’d just have to knock 38 seconds off the National Security Advisor’s briefing to get back on track.

When the spontaneous applause died down and the Jessups had returned to their seats, the President continued. “Paul Harkness’ actions reflect the grandest image of America, of people willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, even at great personal risk. The Fire Department, Paramedics and Police arrived on the scene in a timely fashion, the first officers arriving within 9 minutes of the first report of the accident. There is no question that those officers would have acted valiantly had there been anything left for them to do. But there was little remaining for them to do by then. Mr. Harkness had already acted. And all of the authorities are in agreement; if not for Mr. Harkness’ quick actions, the outcome of that day would have been tragedy. And so, we are gathered today to bestow on Paul Harkness, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award our government can confer on a civilian. This award is not lightly given, nor was it lightly earned.” Turning to Harkness, he held out the medal, removed it from its jewelry style box, and draped the ribbon over Paul’s neck. He said, “Paul Harkness, I am honored and humbled at the opportunity to present you with this medal.”

This time, the applause was loud and sustained. After a brief round of hand shaking, the press began to shout questions. A Q&A was definitely not in the script, so Paul was surprised when the President began to respond to some of the questions. Harper obviously felt like the event was serving him well and had decided to milk the good will for all it was worth.

One of the reporters addressed Paul. In keeping with the tone of the event, it was a seemingly softball question. “Mr. Harkness, can President Harper count on your vote in the fall”?

Laughing lightly, the President steered Paul to the podium and took a step back.

On any other day, what happened next would not have happened. But at that moment, Paul was overawed by the event. Truth be told, he was a little full of himself, having just been presented to the world as the best thing since sliced cheese. Then again, on any other day, he would have been just bullshitting with the guys at one of his stores and no-one would have given a damn what he said. But this wasn’t any other day.

Paul, without giving it a thought, said, “I haven’t actually decided yet. I usually wait until I can look at one of the candidates and say, ‘that guy’s way more qualified than me.”

Stunned silence followed. Douglas was so pissed off, you could practically see the froth at the corners of his mouth. Rachel was hiding a grin behind her hand and seemed to be bouncing slightly in her chair. Paul’s mother looked like she’d have crawled under her chair given half a chance. Addie’s jaw nearly hit the floor. Paul took in all of this in an instant that felt like an hour.

Breaking the silence, he turned to the President and sheepishly added, “No offence intended”.

President Harper’s face looked as if it might crack from trying to maintain the requisite smile. Leaning into the mic, he said, “None taken, I’m sure”.

At this point, the event ended quietly to polite applause. The President shook Paul’s hand with the least bit of enthusiasm necessary, turned his back and strode back into the White House. Tom Douglas glared daggers at Paul and then quickly followed the President. So much for the script, Paul thought. Darrell came to Paul’s rescue, ushering him into a room where a small reception would take place.

Turning to Darrell, Paul said, “Guess I screwed the pooch on that one, huh”?

Quietly, Darrell said, “They could hear the howling in Tacoma”.

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